From Endurance to Dressage
Before starting Tuesday's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I told him about Izzy's rear and how I had worked through it all. I was a little surprised by the follow up questions Sean asked. In my mind, I had closed the case. I had worked worked through it, and that was the end of it. Not to Sean; he wanted to probe a bit deeper, and after answering all of his questions, he suspected that we have been packaging Izzy up too much, too soon. Remember, he had most of the summer off as he recovered from two different injuries.
To test his hypothesis, Sean had me work Izzy in a forward thinking canter. He also had me work to lower Izzy's neck from the withers, something I've never thought about in the canter before. I usually work to get him rounder to lift his back, but letting him lower his neck from the withers encourages more swing.
Nothing miraculous happened, but Izzy did stretch down and open his stride a bit. Cantering with an "open frame" did give me a very new feeling though. I could feel Izzy struggling to hold his balance in this new, longer frame, but he struggled in a good way. He didn't feel so "balled up." Sean warned me about doing too much of this work though as it would eventually dump Izzy onto his forehand.
The entire lesson went very well. When I first started riding with Sean two and a half years ago, we had about a 15 minute window where we could work on something new before Izzy's timer went off. These days, we can work for a solid 45 minutes without Izzy checking out or having a melt down. Instead of working on Izzy, Sean is able to work on me. Once he fixes what I am doing wrong, Izzy responds instantly. It's very motivating to know that I am the problem because that can be fixed.
Izzy might be complicated, but Sean has figured both him and me out.
I am finally back to having weekly lessons with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. This week's lesson was very telling.
We started out at a very pokey walk; it was hot and Izzy is getting his winter coat. While Izzy pretended to stretch down - he was actually rooting the reins in an effort to not do anything, I gave Sean a quick run down of the things I had worked on since last week's lesson: suppleness at the canter, flying changes, leg yield with more power, shoulder in, and the half pass. Since I hadn't had major issues, we picked up where we had left off the week before.
As we worked, Sean made suggestions here and there. My right arm likes to do weird things no matter which direction we're going. I need remember to sit in the direction of the bend, usually the right. I need to check to see that I am not locked up somewhere causing Izzy to lock up somewhere. I love all of this critique of my position because when I ride correctly, Izzy responds.
It wasn't until the end of the lesson that I had a pretty solid AHA! moment. We had come back to the canter work. Izzy is anticipating the flying change, so we were working on not asking for it. Instead, Sean had me focus on the moments before the change. Since Izzy wants to anticipate the change, Sean told me to exaggerate the bend until Izzy relaxes. Then I can do whatever transition I want to do - a trot or even the walk. Once we make the transition, I can then change the bend.
That all sounded good, but It wasn't working. As soon as I made the corner to canter across the diagonal, Izzy started hopping in anticipation of a change even though I wasn't going to ask for one. I finally told Sean that I needed a minute to get some control back. I told him I was going to ride like he wasn't watching. I heard him lift his eyebrows, but he agreed to see what (horror) I was about to pull out of my pocket.
I put Izzy into a canter, and as soon as he threatened to hop and break gait, I flexed him to the inside, stuck my leg on, and pushed him forward into the canter. I started with a bit of counter canter by coming off the rail in a very shallow loop. As we worked, I made the loops steeper and steeper, riding 10-meter circles whenever he threatened to jerk the bend away.
After working him both directions, Sean and I had a chat. I laughed as I told him that his method of "over exaggerating the bend" wasn't working for me until I pulled on my big girl panties and over exaggerated the bend. I explained that when I ride with him, I do my best to ride well. When I ride alone, I find that there are times when I have to man up, pull out the big guns, and get sh%t done.
Again, I heard him roll his eyes as he exclaimed, "I want you ride like that ALL the time!" His exasperation came though clearly. When I am in a lesson, I tend to try to make things look pretty. I don't want him to see our "ugly moments," those times when I need to get in there, fix it, and get out. Sean explained that that is EXACTLY what he wants to see me do.
With Izzy, I have to tread so carefully. If I push too hard, he loses it, but when I don't push hard enough, he gets away with doing whatever he wants to, like avoiding the flying changes. Sean said something though that gave me a big boost of confidence. You know the difference, and you can tell when you need to change the conversation. He's right; I do know when I need to move on to something else or when I need to come at the problem from a different angle.
We finished up with me promising to bring my big guns daily. Izzy works better for me when I do. Sean left me with this thought: ask three times. If I don't get the response, that's when I know to pull out my big gun and get things done. I promised I'd try.
Now when I tack up I have to remember to grab my big girl panties AND a big gun!
It has been months since I've had an AHA! while riding. During Tuesday night's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, only the third since the beginning of June, I had a big one!
With Sean watching and offering feedback here and there, I warmed Izzy up and then moved on to some canter work. Compared to just a week ago, Izzy's canter is much improved. He was already so much more balanced that I was able to leg yield in the canter and do a few transitions without him running through my aids. Sean thought Izzy looked balanced enough for me to ask for a flying change. I didn't then, but we did school it later.
Then we move on to the lateral work. As always, the shoulder in needed more ... more inside bend, more forward, more sitting to the inside. We then moved onto the travers which was made better after some coaching from Sean. I sometimes like to pull on the inside rein; even through the video Sean can can call me out on it. After riding travers on the long side, I turned it into a half pass by riding the travers across the diagonal. It wasn't much of a travers, or half pass, as Izzy's haunches were trailing.
This was a problem I had with Speedy. The lateral work is much easier for Izzy, but even so, I just couldn't get his haunches in the conversation. That's when Sean suggested I use my inside leg to do a bit of leg yield. I don't know about you, but I could not wrap my brain around how to do that.
When riding a half pass, the horse is bent in a slight banana-shape and then travels toward the direction of the bend. In half pass left, for example, the horse is bent left with haunches bent left. The rider sits on her left seat bone, inside leg at the girth and outside leg swept back. The inside rein indicates the bend while the outside hand comes back to help move the outside leg in. With the horse in position, you trot across a diagonal with the end point between the horse's ears. According to Sean, the half pass is really just a travers ridden on a diagonal instead of the long side.
Sean wanted me to use my inside leg to leg yield instead of do the half pass, but only for a moment. Once I over exaggerated the moment by actually leg yielding two strides, that big aha lightbulb popped over my head. I felt what Sean needed me to feel, but I didn't understand what to do with it. Sean never leaves me hanging though.
He explained that at the moment, Izzy's shoulders are falling in on the half pass which sends his haunches out, or trailing. By doing a moment of leg yield, I am standing Izzy back up on his shoulders so that his hind end can come around and join the party rather than being left trailing out behind. With Sean's explanation, the AHA! was much bigger. One aha! a year makes it all worth it; one a week is a game changer!
Last week and the week before, I finally, FINALLY got lessons after nearly three months! So many things happened this summer that kept me out of the ring.
Some time during the spring, Sean was lamenting the loss of opportunities in Ventura County. The shows were getting smaller and smaller, and trainers and riders were leaving the area. I asked Sean if he would ever considering moving to Florida. I should have kept my mouth shut. When we returned from Europe, Sean broke the news - he was taking the leap and heading to Ocala, Florida permanently. I was thrilled for what moving could do for his career, but disappointed in what that meant for me.
With Izzy finally sound and his wound just about closed up, I put in a few rides just to see if we were ready for a lesson. I reached out to Sean to check his availability, and we planned for a Tuesday afternoon. The bonus to him being in Florida is that he finishes his day three hours before I finish mine. This means I can now ride in the afternoon while he coaches me from home in the evening.
Having a lesson after school works great for me, but it presents a few challenges. I have to change clothes in the truck - which I already do, and I have to set up my Pivo Pod in a different location because of the angle of the sun. Sean had never before seen the A end of my arena because I've always ridden in the morning.
To my surprise both of the lessons we've had these past two weeks have gone really well. The first couple of working rides on Izzy after his pastern was healed enough for a real ride were a bit dicey. With Sean's coaching though, I was able to diffuse those moments, and since then, Izzy has a been a pleasure to ride.
For both lessons, Sean has had me ride Izzy in a deeper frame to he left but a little more up in the bridle to the right. Izzy's balance is a little weak right now, but the more I ride, the more sure of himself he is becoming. In the leg yields, Sean wants me to push him so that Izzy has to really cross his legs as that seems to help him let go of the tension in his back.
The final thing I've been working on is slow and gradual changes of bend in the canter. Izzy is really worried about the flying changes even though I haven't asked for any since May. Over the weekend, I was finally able to do a change of lead through trot-to-walk-to canter. I wanted him to be completely relaxed before picking up the new lead, and doing it through trot-to-walk reduced all of the tension.
I love doing a lesson during the week instead of on Saturdays because it gives me all weekend to work on things. It also gives Sean his weekends to do whatever he wants, and from what he's told me, Florida has a lot to offer. We have another lesson this afternoon.
It's good to be back on a schedule.
Over the past month or so, my lessons with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage have been about fine tuning my aids to get better results. Everything we did last Saturday was about helping me keep Izzy in better balance.
When Izzy feels confident, it's because he has let me be in control, and that only happens when I enforce my aids fairly. When I am in control, Sean can help fine tune my position so that my aids are more effective. Some horses join your team easily and readily; Speedy's like that. In some ways, Izzy is a lot like me; it takes a lot to earn his trust. Izzy is more of a bolt first and ask questions later kind of guy. It is easy to let him suck you into a fight, especially if you don't even know that's what he's done. Not taking the bait is one of the most important things that Sean has taught me.
All of that was a long winded way of saying that with Sean's coaching, I now have ways to avoid the fight which helps me keep control which makes Izzy feel confident and relaxed.
One things Sean caught last Saturday was our shoulder-in right. Sean has taught me that riding the shoulder-in correctly means the shoulders come IN rather than the haunches swinging OUT. Both will get you in position when you shoulder-in down the long side, but as soon as you use the center line or quarter line, the "cheat" will become obvious. Izzy bends around my leg and brings his shoulders in neatly to the left, but to the right is/was a different story.
This week I've been working on corralling that wayward hind end. My outside leg has to support his haunches as we come through the corner without using too much leg which sends them in. I've been able to do that by riding the shoulder-in much more slowly so that Izzy has time to balance himself as he wraps around my inside leg.
Fine tuning my position has been fun to do. Seeing the difference that I can make by sitting a bit more to the inside or moving my hand to the left a few inches is motivating. Seeing how even tiny changes makes Izzy move better makes me want to continue to tweak the little things. I doubt I'll wow Sean with my masterfully ridden shoulder-in tomorrow, but it will be fun to give it a try!
Sean recognizes that it's a journey, so if it is only a slightly less bad shoulder-in, I'll be happy.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: